The Yodel that Ate Celluloid:
Yodeling as Secret Weapon
Tim Burton’s over-the-top 1996 film Mars Attacks, about menacing Martians conquering a globe of naïve earthlings, features the yodel as the vocal equivalent of a secret PsyOps weapon that ultimately saves the earth from Martian domination. At a climactic instant, the headphones of an eccentric old lady who’s always listening to her favorite yodeler, Slim Whitman, suddenly slip off her head, exposing the Martians to Whitman’s histrionic yodeling-crooning: “When I’m calling you-oo-oo…” Yodeling’s high notes shatter the Martians’ helmets and their heads explode in great bursts of green cerebral goo. Forget the power of love, this is the power of yodeling.
Farfetched? Well, yes and no. Manfred Bukofzer, in his 1936 Magic and Technique in Alpine Music, described the magical powers of various Alpine tones when combined with certain mystical words. Meanwhile, 17th-century tales describe Swiss mercenaries suffering from heimweh (homesickness) who, upon hearing certain Alpine songs, would go AWOL, go berserk, or even die. A law was passed that forbade hysteria-arousing yodeling in the presence of Swiss soldiers.
The genuine, if surreal, power of yodeling can best be illustrated by an apocryphal story: It’s Cuba in 1959; Johnny Weissmuller is driving a car full of friends to a celebrity golf tournament when they’re ambushed by Fidel Castro’s rebels. In a bind, fast-thinking Weissmuller belts out his famous Tarzan yell. The stunned rebels, recognizing the yell as that of their movie hero, hastily apologize and personally escort Weissmuller’s entourage to the tournament.
Tarzan’s jungle yell was actually "invented" by Weissmuller himself. As he recalled in a TV interview: "When I was a kid I used to read all the Tarzan books, and they had a kind of shrill yell for Tarzan…when I finally got [the role of Tarzan], they were trying to do yells like that. And I remembered when I was a kid I used to yodel at picnics on Sundays, and I said, ‘I know a yell!’"
The MGM sound producers, however, apparently took Weissmuller’s jungle yodel— Aaahhhh-eeeeeee-aaaahhhh-eeeeee-aaaahhhh-eeeeeee-aaaahhhh!— and mixed in an odd potpourri of sounds including a "hyena’s yowl played backwards, a camel’s bleat, the pluck of a violin string, and a soprano’s high-C."
Tarzan’s yodel joins Julie Andrews’ yodeling in The Sound of Music and the Seven Dwarfs’ yodeling in Disney’s Snow White as among the world’s most recognizable yodels— all courtesy of Hollywood. We should add a fourth yodel that gained its fame and much of its character from the hundreds of cowboy films that stampeded across our collective mind screen.
A Yodel is a Jodel
But first, what is a yodel? Greeting? Warning? Joyous outburst? Pious ululation? Esophagal calisthenics? A cowherd’s hootchie-cootchie come-on to the most udder-endowed among his herd? Alpine Lorelei singing? Or just some irritating "variation upon the tones of a jackass," as Sir Walter Scott opined in 1830? Well, probably a bit of all of the above.
Simply put, the yodel is distinguished from other vocalizations by its emphasis on that jolt of air that occurs as the voice passes from bass or low chest voice to high head voice or falsetto, and vice versa. No glottal jolt, no yodel.
A genuine yodel, or juutz, is wordless and not really "music" per se, but an acoustical signal, mostly associated with cowherds communicating with one another and with their herds. Ed Sanders of the Fugs calls it "a kind of homemade Morse code for people in the mountains." The yodel only became part of popular music— as ornamental refrain— in the early 1800s, when Tyrolean troubadours began taking their yodeling to tourists and homesick emigrants. A good yodeler can effortlessly span three octaves between the chest and head voices. Yodeling’s unique ability to project over great distances is due to its abrupt changes in pitch, changes that in 1829 led Goethe to groan, "I can only tolerate the popular yodeling outdoors or in big rooms."
The Hills are Alive with Yodeling
Robert Wise’s 1965 The Sound of Music best embodies this glorious outdoors in both image and sound. Sound was based on the real-life story of Baroness Maria von Trapp— or, more accurately, a three-hour adaptation of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway musical hit which produced Ernest Lehman’s screenplay, which was based on the Lindsay/Crouse book, which was based on Baroness Maria von Trapp’s 1949 autobiography about the harrowing tale of the family’s escape from the Nazis, and the German film Die Trapp Familie. A candy-coated wholesome— albeit joyously exhilarating— rendition of the fourth-hand truth, then. The famous "Lonely Goatherd," with Andrews yodeling, is more than just a joy-of-music song. It also introduces the Plummer–Andrews love entanglement. "Goatherd" was one of the many songs written for Mary Martin who starred— and yodeled— in the original Broadway musical. (Originally titled The Singing Heart, it opened on Broadway in 1959 and was to be Rodgers and Hammerstein’s last collaboration.)
The "Swiss Family Fraunfelder" was responsible for much of the yodeling performed by the Seven Dwarfs in Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs, Disney’s legendary 1937 animated feature. "Papa" Fraunfelder, a yodeler-musician, led his troubadour four-part-harmony-yodeling family from Switzerland to California and co-wrote numerous Disney yodel songs, while son Rheiny supplied the yodel voice of Dopey in the "Silly Song," a yodel now embedded in the collective audio mp3-memories of millions of people worldwide. Yodelers Jim Macdonald, Wesley Tuttle, and Zeke Clements supplied further Seven Dwarfs epiglottal support.
In the late 1930’s, the Fraunfelders actually taught yodeling in the California school system (!); in the 1940’s they moved to Wisconsin, where the Schlitz Brewing company, maker of a modestly drinkable beer, sponsored them and they became known as the "Schlitz Family Frauenfelder."
Spangles & Yodels
Hollywood put cowboys on the cultural map. Early cowboy stars Tom Mix, Tex Ritter, and the first celluloid singer, Ken Maynard, were quickly eclipsed by two cowboys of more professional manufacture— Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. Autry’s warm singing and able yodeling actually complemented his stilted acting. By the mid-1930s, Autry had taken on the nickname "Oklahoma’s Singing Cowboy," and was patterning his singing-yodeling after Jimmie Rodgers. Meanwhile, Roy Rogers, "King of the Cowboys" and original member of the excellent Sons of the Pioneers, was ironically one of the few cowboys who had ever used the yodel for its original purpose of field communication. Both Autry and Rogers sang and yodeled in literally hundreds of films, and were well-remunerated for their yodeling and, yes, Christian decency.
As Ranger Doug Green, yodeler and author of Singing in the Saddle: The History of the Singing Cowboy, notes, "There are tons of yodels in the singing cowboy pictures…too many to mention." Here are just a few: Apache Country (1952), including Gene Autry performing Carolina Cotton’s "I Love to Yodel"; Cowboy from Lonesome River (1944) and Cowboy in the Clouds (1943), featuring Shelby Atchison performing yodels; I’m from Arkansas (1944), a hillbilly comedy about drunk hog farmers in Pitchfork, Arkansas, featuring Jimmy Wakely on "Yodel Mountain" and Cotton’s "I Love to Yodel"; Laramie (1949), with Elton Britt yodeling "Chime Bells"; Smoky River Serenade (1947), including Cotton and the Hoosier Hot-Shots yodeling; Song of Nevada (1944), featuring yodelers Roy Rogers and Sons of the Pioneers; South of Santa Fe (1942), including Sons of the Pioneers yodeling; Texas Panhandle (1945), including Cotton’s "I Love to Yodel"; Yodelin’ Kid from Pine Ridge (1937), in which Gene Autry finds himself yodeling in a scuffle between woodsmen and ranchers; West of Pinto Basin (1940), featuring gentlemanly yodeling by the Range Busters.
The celluloid cowboys may not have been authentic, but their spangly shimmering aberrations— Las Vegas meets Cow Pie, Texas, on a Busby Berkley acid trip— were never meant to project "cowboy" so much as "entertainer." The 1940s Hollywood androgynous kitsch cowboy dandy, a cartoon in flesh and chaps, emerged from a dime novel into a virtual West to combine paint-by-number myths, old melodies, and British ballads, Broadway, jazz, dabs of Mexican song, Czech polkas, German lieden, Southern ballads, fiddle tunes— and tacked-on yodel refrains, to offer listeners an escape from their own humdrum lives. The more real cowboys disappeared from the actual American landscape the more they crooned and danced inside the magic lanterns of our collective nostalgic minds.
This is a reworked excerpt from Bart Plantenga’s Yodel-Ay-Ee-Oooo: The Secret History of Yodeling Around the World (Routledge, November 2003).
Bart Plantenga is the author of the novel Beer Mystic, and Yodel-Ay-Ee-Oooo: The Secret History of Yodeling Around the World (Routledge); he also compiled the CD Rough Guide to Yodel. He is currently working on Yodel in HiFi, a documentary on yodeling, and two new yodel compilations.